Welcome to People Behind the Meeples, a series of interviews with indie game designers. Here you'll find out more than you ever wanted to know about the people who make the best games that you may or may not have heard of before. If you'd like to be featured, head over to http://gjjgames.blogspot.com/p/game-designer-interview-questionnaire.html and fill out the questionnaire! You can find all the interviews here: People Behind the Meeples.
Interviewed on: 08/24/16
I first met Heather at the Madison Protospiel in October, 2015. She and her husband came as playtesters and tried out a few of my games, as well as many others' games. Through the course of the weekend we talked quite a bit about the game that she was designing to have a murder mystery party in a box. The game idea would blend the traditional murder mystery game style with board game mechanics in a way that encouraged the live action role playing, but without all the required planning and setup (and the reliance on specific 'cast' members to be present). It sounded intriguing then, and I've been following along with the development of the project ever since. Now Night at Higsley Manor is well on its way to fruition! It's definitely something to keep your eye on, especially if you like mystery games like Clue, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, or Mysterium, or like role playing and story games like Tales of the Arabian Nights or D&D, or social party games like Werewolf or Mafia. Keep reading to find out more about Heather and the projects she's involved in.
Tell me a bit about yourself.
How long have you been designing tabletop games?
Less than six months.
Why did you start designing tabletop games?
I have been trying to develop a murder mystery dinner party kit that allows a flexible guest list. I have been working on the mechanics of getting a party like this to function, and my husband has been creating characters and writing their murder stories.
The Game Crafter's summer game design contest, the GameHole Gauntlet, made me feel the time was right to see if a table top game was the solution for me. With a lot of help from Protospiel Michigan and the associated game designer community, I think the table top game solution is coming along nicely.
What game or games are you currently working on?
I am trying to create one set of game mechanics that can be re-themed for multiple host-a-murder stories and settings. The company that will serve up these mystery party kits is called Open House Mystery Parties.
The usual expectation for murder mystery dinner parties is for guests to show up in character equipped with a costume and some acting cues. My hope is to create 24 characters for every theme - 12 male and 12 female - and sell them in character sets of 6 to allow hosts to scale their parties as needed and chose a character set that fits well with their social circle.
Night at Higsley Manor: Rumors of Wars is the first character set for the first theme we will release. It is a social deduction table top game in which the innocent suspects try to figure out which player is the murderer. Play testers have told me they see it as a cross between Clue and Mafia. Unlike Clue, in an Open House Mystery Parties game, if you are the murderer, you know you are the murderer. Unlike Mafia, it can be played with a small group and doesn't require a game master.
Currently the base table top game is the most highly developed portion of our product offering, but we are working on creating mini games/expansions to go along with the base game that will get people up out of their seats and doing things that help them get more immersed in the storyline the game is built around.
Have you designed any games that have been published?
What is your day job?
I have my own consultancy called Newton Creative Solutions, LLC which offers digital marketing services - WordPress websites, lead generation, email marketing, social media strategies, etc. However, I've been setting aside most client work over the summer so I could have enough time to finish Night at Higsley Manor: Rumors of Wars.
The one client I did take on was a startup board game publisher called Grand Gamers Guild. (I was lucky enough to find someone who was willing to let me spend the majority of my time on Open House Mystery Parties, and I wasn't about to pass that up!) I'm excited to get to help out with the launch of Grand Gamers Guild and their first game release, Unreal Estate. I feel the owner, Marc Specter, has awesome taste in games, and it will be great to see more good games getting out on the market thanks to the team at Grand Gamers Guild.
Your Gaming Tastes
My readers would like to know more about you as a gamer.
Where do you prefer to play games?
I think Protospiel is the very best gaming environment I've been exposed to so far. I've attended the Protospiel in Madison, Ann Arbor, and Chicago now, and both had an amazingly positive, supportive, almost overwhelmingly creative atmosphere.
Who do you normally game with?
My husband. We often have game tournament weekends to celebrate our birthdays and anniversaries.
I've also recently started building up a group of play testers for Open House Mystery Parties and getting connected with people in the Colorado Game Designers Guild. I expect I'll be gaming with these people more and more regularly in the coming months.
If you were to invite a few friends together for game night tonight, what games would you play?
In general, I'm looking to play something the entire group will have fun with (and be able to play effectively.) I like cooperative games because they usually have decisions interesting enough to keep me engaged, but anyone at the table who isn't very good at games doesn't have to feel like a loser.
As I worked on Night at Higsley Manor: Rumors of Wars, I've gotten a ton of great feedback about what makes social deduction games fun for both the cooperative group and the subversive, and I've started to love playing social deduction games more and more. Often early in play testing, when the players would get in arguments, I'd try to interject suggestions to "fix" the game, but they'd reply "No, no this is awesome! It's just what you want!" I'm starting to understand what they mean now.
And what snacks would you eat?
I am currently avoiding wheat, rice, corn, dairy, soy, and sugar in an attempt to heal myself of some various minor health issues. A lot of what I eat consists of bacon, eggs, and salads with carefully chosen dressings. I have however, found an amazing snack to eat when I am too absorbed in gaming to go out in search of a wholesome meal -- Vanillamax Bulletproof Bars. They are unlike any other protein bar I've tried - made with coconut, cashew, and whole vanilla beans, sweetened with stevia. I made one of these my entire meal at least twice at the last Protospiel I visited and didn't feel the slightest bit hungry or deprived. It was pretty great.
Do you like to have music playing while you play games? If so, what kind?
If I can have silence while gaming, I prefer that, but while I'm working on building out my game files, Mat Kearney, Ingrid Michelson, Jars of Clay, Regina Spector, the Fray, and Hillsong provide a lot of the music that helps me focus and get things done.
What’s your favorite FLGS?
I refuse to pick favorites ;) Multiple FLGS have been helping me out with play testing opportunities and general support: Heroes & Horrors in Windsor, CO, Gryphon Games in Ft Collins, CO, and Rogues Roost in my hometown of Loveland, CO.
What is your current favorite game? Least favorite that you still enjoy? Worst game you ever played?
The first thing that pops into my mind as a favorite game is Morels. It has a nice way of feeling delightful while still vexing me a little every time. Isle of Skye is another great one.
I like the Lego Heroica games in theory, but the game play mechanics are pretty weak. I've been trying to figure out how to change the rules to make the game play more interesting, which is technically encouraged in all Lego games anyway... What an interesting way to avoid having your game labeled as a failure.
I hate Apples to Apples - probably mostly because it's often the only one an entire mixed group at a party is willing to play together. I see it as a waste of good gaming time. There are no interesting decisions to make and no real strategy. It's also not as funny as it's made out to be.
What is your favorite game mechanic? How about your least favorite?
I like deck building games -- in particular when I can create action chains.
Basic dice rolls are my least favorite mechanic because I just feel like the game is happening to me.
What’s your favorite game that you just can’t ever seem to get to the table?
I have been desperately trying to get Mystery of the Abbey to the table but still haven't even gotten a chance to play once. It requires 3 players, so my husband and I can't do it on our own. The same thing goes for Battlestar Galactica, although I don't own that one myself.
What styles of games do you play?
I like to play Board Games, Card Games, Video Games
Do you design different styles of games than what you play?
I like to design Board Games, Card Games
OK, here's a pretty polarizing game. Do you like and play Cards Against Humanity?
Only with the right group and if I'm in the right mood. (It's much better with a beer in hand.)
You as a Designer
OK, now the bit that sets you apart from the typical gamer. Let's find out about you as a game designer.
When you design games, do you come up with a theme first and build the mechanics around that? Or do you come up with mechanics and then add a theme? Or something else?
The mystery party project has been my only reason to go into game design, so the theme definitely comes first in my case.
Have you ever entered or won a game design competition?
I entered Night at Higsley Manor in The Game Crafter's GameHole Gauntlet at the end of August. I’m currently in the semi-finals.
Do you have a current favorite game designer or idol?
I don't like picking favorites here either... I haven't historically paid much attention to big names in the game design industry, so my favorite game designers are the friends I've made at Protospiels.
Where or when or how do you get your inspiration or come up with your best ideas?
Protospiel is a fitting answer for this one, too.
Other than that, it seems to be any time I can get a pencil, some paper, and scissors in hand -- and it helps to have some constraints/directives like those provided by a game design contest or the available parts list on The Game Crafter.
How do you go about playtesting your games?
I'm pursuing many avenues with this. Again, of course, Protospiel, the Colorado Game Designers Guild Front Range Play Testers group on Meetup, contacts at FLGS, and simply reaching out to my circle of friends who know this has been a dream of mine for a long time. Also, the co-designer for Night at Higsley Manor: Rumors of Wars, Sam Marcus (one of those friends I met at Protospiel), is helping me to get a play testing system working in Tabletop Simulator, and I'm gearing up to offer print and play PDFs via email sign ups on my website.
Do you like to work alone or as part of a team? Co-designers, artists, etc.?
I prefer having a team - all the way. There is absolutely no way I could have made my game even 1/4 as good without all the help and advice I've received on every aspect of it.
What do you feel is your biggest challenge as a game designer?
I think it's challenging for me to describe the vision for my line of games. I think a lot of people find it overwhelming to even digest the entire idea of the big picture, so it's hard for them to believe it's realistic for me to expect to bring it to market as I envision it. For instance, via Slack, I explained to my graphic designer that I will eventually need to sell multiple themes to be a real player in the murder mystery dinner party market, so that means I'll have to develop 24 x 3-7 characters, so I'll have somewhere between 72-168 mystery characters before I'll likely be willing to stop. He basically responded with several question marks. (I could almost hear that record-scratch sound effect!)
I realize it's going to be a lot of work, but I've loved every minute of working on it so far, and I believe it will get much easier once I've established the template.
If you could design a game within any IP, what would it be?
Harry Potter... With Disney animated features as a close second.
What do you wish someone had told you a long time ago about designing games?
I wish I had known about The Game Crafter sooner than I did. That service could have made the first test party I ran about 3 years ago much less frustrating and time consuming.
What advice would you like to share about designing games?
Don't be too precious about your own ideas. There's no way you can hold *all* the best ideas in your own mind. Assuming you want to sell your game, it's more important that the general populace likes it than that it uses the first mechanic you started building the game around.
At the same time, it's important to know when a piece of feedback isn't important. I feel like that's more of an art than a science, but a good general rule is to not worry about something too much if only one person ever says it (coupled with trusting your instincts).
Would you like to tell my readers what games you're working on and how far along they are?
Games that will soon be published are: 4 Character sets for Night at Higsley Manor - Rumors of Wars, Simpler Times, Mysteries of the Ancients, and The Overseers
Games that I'm playtesting are: Night at Higsley Manor: Rumors of Wars
And games that are still in the very early idea phase are: A very basic Easter egg hunt + card drafting game that will add physical activity to the Night at Higsley Manir experience.
Are you a member of any Facebook or other design groups? (Game Maker’s Lab, Card and Board Game Developers Guild, etc.)
I’m a member of the Protospiel Facebook group and the Colorado Game Designers Guild.
And the oddly personal, but harmless stuff…
OK, enough of the game stuff, let's find out what really makes you tick! These are the questions that I’m sure are on everyone’s minds!
Star Trek or Star Wars? Coke or Pepsi? VHS or Betamax?
Both. Neither (I never drink soda, even when I'm not "on a diet"). What is Betamax?
What hobbies do you have besides tabletop games?
I've done oil painting since I was 8. The project I'm currently working on is a sky full of hot air balloons on a wooden cutout for a nightlight. I've also done cross stitch since I was a kid, and I recently bought some more kits I can work on to unwind from a long day of looking at a computer screen.
What is something you learned in the last week?
Both how to move and resize objects in InDesign (instead of my good buddy Illustrator) and how to work with Tabletop Simulator.
Favorite type of music? Books? Movies?
I'm a huge supporter of Disney/Pixar's animated movies. My husband and I are currently working through all of Agatha Christie's novels. (He reads to me while I work on art projects -- he's a good husband). I also don't think I'll ever get tired of reading Harry Potter books.
What was the last book you read?
Will it Fly? By Pat Flynn
Do you play any musical instruments?
Tell us something about yourself that you think might surprise people.
Someone in my family won ~2 million dollars at a casino once.
Tell us about something crazy that you once did.
Hm, the Road to Hana was kind of crazy, I guess. It's surpringly desolate of any civilization considering it's one of the most famous places in Hawaii.
Who is your idol?
What would you do if you had a time machine?
I probably wouldn't use it... I'm not sure how they get out of all those crazy situations on Star Trek, and I wouldn't want to push my luck.
Are you an extrovert or introvert?
Kind of in between.
Have any pets?
Yes, 2 female cats - Gabby & Gizmo
When the next asteroid hits Earth, causing the Yellowstone caldera to explode, California to fall into the ocean, the sea levels to rise, and the next ice age to set in, what current games or other pastimes do you think (or hope) will survive into the next era of human civilization? What do you hope is underneath that asteroid to be wiped out of the human consciousness forever?
Sitting around the campfire telling stories [will hopefully survive].
If you’d like to send a shout out to anyone, anyone at all, here’s your chance (I can’t guarantee they’ll read this though):
I think I got everybody :)
Thank you for reading this People Behind the Meeples indie game designer interview! You can find all the interviews here: People Behind the Meeples and if you'd like to be featured yourself, you can fill out the questionnaire here: http://gjjgames.blogspot.com/p/game-designer-interview-questionnaire.html
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